Black HERstory Month: Octavia Butler, an unexpected queen of sci-fi8:31 pm - 02/12/2013
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Octavia E. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. She studied at several universities and began her writing career in the 1970s. Her books blended elements of science fiction and African American spiritualism. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), led the five-volume Patternist series. Butler went on to write several other novels, including Kindred (1979), and Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999), of the Parable series. She continued to write and publish until her death on February 24, 2006, in Seattle Washington.
Butler thrived in a genre typically dominated by white males. She lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother. To support the family, her mother worked as a maid.
As a child, Octavia E. Butler was known for her shyness and her impressive height. She was dyslexic, but she didn't let this challenge deter her from developing a love of books. Butler started creating her own stories early on, and she decided to make writing her life's work around the age of 10. She later earned an associate degree from Pasadena City College. Butler also studied her craft with Harlan Ellison at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.
To make ends meet, Butler took all sorts of jobs while maintaining a strict writing schedule. She was known to work for several hours very early in the morning each day. In 1976, Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster. This book was the first in a series of works about a group of people with telepathic powers called Patternists. Other Patternist titles include Mind of My Mind (1977) and Clay's Ark (1984).
In 1979, Butler had a career breakthrough with Kindred. The novel tells the story of a African American woman who travels back in time to save a white slave owner—her own ancestor. In part, Butler drew some inspiration from her mother's work. "I didn't like seeing her go through back doors," she once said, according to The New York Times. "If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure."
For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy. But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity. It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity. In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for the best short story of the year, for "Speech Sounds." That same year, the novelette "Bloodchild" won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo.
In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race.
To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy. She went on to write the Parable series, which includes the novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999).
In 1995, Butler received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which allowed her to buy a house for her mother and herself.
In 1999, Butler abandoned her native California to move north to Seattle, Washington. She was a perfectionist with her work and spent several years grappling with writer's block. Her efforts were hampered by her ill health and the medications she took. After starting and discarding numerous projects, Butler wrote her last novel Fledgling (2005).
On February 24, 2006, Octavia E. Butler died at her Seattle home. She was 58 years old. With her death, the literary world lost one of its great storytellers. She is remembered, as Gregory Hampton wrote in Callaloo, as writer of "stories that blurred the lines of distinction between reality and fantasy." And through her work, "she revealed universal truths."
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She was an absolutely fantastic author and woman.
For those who have read her work and are interested in work similar to hers, her friend Tananarive Due is an excellent Black horror/sci-fi author that I really enjoy.